Tuesday, 20 December 2011

A Little Girl In My Room & Other Stories by Claire Farrell, Kindle Direct Publishing

(A shorter review this week due to pressing seasonal commitments).

Plucked at random, this first-time author release from last year showcases’ a dozen little psycho-chillers, mostly from the narrator’s point of view.
  Here is the modish taste for story as extended anecdote – now labelled flash fiction – that could just as well be a series of climactic scenes from first draft novels.  To serve this sparse economy, sentences are either extremely short or just what might otherwise, in longer works, be post-semi-colon pay-offs.
  At first, I felt rising exasperation that I was reading little more than what could pass as the school essay of a precocious fourteen year old.  Then, as each further tale flew by, a strange effect, and one quite claustrophobic, took over.  As though, as a reader, I had to fight, not to get away, but just get out into open air.  The stark simplicity of the prose style had managed to stifle and stymie - an effect reminiscent of early Ballard.
  How intentional this is, is as much a mystery as the un-avatared personality behind the tales.  Farrell’s Facebook page reveals a 28-year-old Dublin-based Irishwoman; an ‘aspiring writer’ who is admirably committing to releasing at least two titles per year.  Equally admirable is her seeming lack of religious guilt that, allied to the supernatural, has hidebound too many previous generations.
  It is, perhaps, pointless to pick out certain tales.  Each covers well-trodden horror ground; familial paedophilia, the summoning of a demon, the out-of-body experience and the unaware ghost.  Na├»ve souls all, initiating scores of which they think they have control that, inevitably, turn around to bite them.  The revenge fantasy also gets an outing.  In ‘Justice,’ a woman, who may or may not have been spurned, wreaks a psychotic revenge on the object of her obsession, and getting what she wants, deprives us of the by now anticipated twist.
  Farrell at least knows the importance of ambiguity in the genre; where the reader only knows whether he can trust the narrator at the story’s end.  In ‘Peace’, this is too easily foregrounded; in ‘Forever Young,’ anticlimactic. Still, the prose is always precise and clear.  Intimating more than the number of words used remains a hallmark of the superior ‘aspiring writer.’

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

In lieu of the next review - I'll refrain from the usual stock and pious statements of regret and farewell.  I doubt he'd appreciate it.   Ultimately, cancer's biggest and worse symptom is the puritanical rubbish it evokes in those who don't believe we should be responsible for our own actions.  i.e. those with little talent and no self-reflection.  Only writers seem to know what writers do and why.  I, for one, am always open to those who aren't, to come on board and, as it were, finally 'see the light.'  For there is no absolute right or absolute wrong in this.  That isn't the point.  We simply live and die as a consequence of our own actions - that's it.  Yet it never fails to amaze me how many - at least in the UK and US - cannot seem to accept that; smiling smugly as if that is the sole view of some pampered, soft-handed elite.
  What's brought this on, you might ask?  Too many people I've known, respected, or both, have succumbed to one of cancer's variants over the past thirty years.  What has linked them - apart from an intellectual brilliance - is that each has taken this simple fact on board.
  I didn't agree with CH's position on the Iraq War (which he supported) and he'd occasionally drop the odd pernicious line into his arguments simply to prompt reaction.  Still, one never felt he'd lost control of an argument.  He appeared to know where he was going by his very openness to uncertainty; feeling his way forward intelligently, you might say.  Considering the breadth of subject matter he'd covered in detail over forty years that's extraordinary.  I'll miss his voice.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The German Refugees by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus European Classics

Few will instinctively include Goethe in the literary canon of short, uncanny fiction.  This is hardly surprising, as he had published in his 83 years little more than a half-dozen such examples.  Far from lethargy or literary failure being the cause, Goethe was, in truth, the complete iconoclast, of which such pieces represent a mere offshoot of far larger interests.  A short attention span might then be closer to the truth.
  Best known for his two-part theatrical extravaganza, Faust, the plot of The German Refugees demonstrates this intellectual restlessness perfectly.
  The French Revolution is in progress and a resident family of German nobles escape together back across the border.  The men argue amongst themselves of its political rights and wrongs while – as we’ve seen is so often the case in European literature of this time – it takes a strong woman to calm such roused egos; in this instance the Baroness von C. of the party, who tries to reason with two, ultimately parting, combatants.
  Also, the book’s form isn’t typically formal being not so much a short story collection as a piecemeal novella.  Seven separate tales, all untitled, are related within the text by the calming, unbiased presence of the Priest.  Often put upon by the others, he is, on each occasion, otherwise urged to take the family away, imaginatively, from their predicament.  This he does via two ghost stories, two tales of thwarted love, two moral tales and, finally, a sensual, standalone fairy tale, which successfully unites each genre.
  Such a framing device is hardly unusual in literature and was, perhaps, a more commercial option then, in the early, populist rise of the novel and a hoped for adaptation into a play.  (Aged 45, Goethe was at the peak of his fame by this point having been a high-ranking official in Weimar, having begun to tout Faust and, now, something of a Classics scholar in the Arts and Sciences).  He may also have felt something of a social responsibility – taking into account his role as a public servant - in that it features several ‘happy’ endings.  But, don’t be put off.  They don’t feel anodyne or unduly fake in context.
  To 21st century eyes, the whole feels only slightly retro in the exchange of wit and familial interplay - not unlike a Bergman film from the 1960s’ or 1970s’.  Besides, any satirical allusions need not be made by the reader, as the stories remain, as they stand, self-explanatory.  The straightforward, unpretentious language in Mike Mitchell’s translation also belies its original publication date of 1795, making the whole quite a speed of a read.
  For those interested in mopping up the remainder of Goethe’s short fiction, I’d urge you to seek out Tales For Transformation, published in hardback by Peter Owen and in paperback by City Lights.  I will also be returning to the Dedalus European Classics series later in the New Year.